A film review by Craig J. Koban June 22, 2011

Rank:  #12


2011, PG-13, 91 mins.


Gil: Owen Wilson / Inez: Rachel McAdams / Gert: Kathy Bates / Salvador: Adrien Brody / Guide: Carla Bruni / Adriana: Marion Cotillard

Written and directed by Woody Allen.

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, Woody Allen’s 41st film during his 75 years – is one that intriguingly bathes in nostalgia while simultaneously criticizing it.

It has the veneer of being mightily steeped in romanticism, but Allen is far too shrewd and tactful for that sort of one-sighted discourse.  MIDNIGHT IN PARIS firmly acknowledges the writer/director’s infectious love for all things Parisian, to be sure, but he maintains an undercurrent that also recognizes that even the most authentic expression of romanticism is sometimes tainted by disappointment.  In short: nostalgia is positive and detrimental...tantalizing and unsavory.  Crucially, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS touches on one cornerstone that encompasses our shared human existence: everything we perceive as being great and better from the past clouds our vision of the beauty before us in the present. 

Allen is one of the great, legendary filmmakers, but you may not know it if only exposed to his most recent work, which has been inconsistent at best.  His masterful films have come and gone, even though many thought that 2005’s MATCH POINT was a return to form for him (I thought it was just Allen riffing on himself: it was CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS 2.0).  I preferred 2004’s MELINDA AND MELINDA, one of his chronically overlooked dramedies as well as VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA.  WHATEVER WORKS was a generally decent Allen film of old, albeit a bit derivative of many of his past efforts.  As much fondness as I had for those last three films, efforts like SCOOP and CASSANDRA’S DREAM stunted my enthusiasm and belief that a great Allen film comeback is to be made. 

I think, though, we have it with MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, which is not only Allen’s best film in years, but also his most sublimely original and intoxicating since 1996’s EVERYONE SAYS I LOVE YOU.  Having long since exhausted his focus on Manhattan locales and characters, not to mention a brief detour in London and Barcelona in his last films, Allen continues his sumptuously realized tour of Europe by landing in Paris.  Through the assistance of Darius Khondji’s evocative and gorgeously minimalist cinematography, which bathes the film in the tranquil cultural, social, and geographical pleasures of the French city, Allen shows now, more than ever, how using Europe as his new muse of sorts has rejuvenated his career.  Aside from being an exquisite travelogue picture, we still get staple Allen elements of old homogenized with a sophisticated, whimsical, philosophical, and innovative premise that makes you think as often as you uproariously laugh. 

Just consider MIDNIGHT IN PARIS’ opening, which begins without dialogue, without introduction to the main characters, and without any discernable plotting:  All we have is a lush and loving observation of Paris itself as a backdrop of dreams.  Allen slowly and casually observes this city as an entity in motion and one that has an indescribable vivacity.  Whether it is basked in sunlight or drench in a stormy downpour, Allen relays to us a Paris that is cherished and revered in its splendor no matter what time of day or setting.  It’s one of the most effectively simplistic, graceful and poignant openings of any film from 2011. 

From here we are introduced to Gil (Owen Wilson) and Inez (Rachel McAdams) that are in the middle of a pre-wedding excursion through Paris.  Clearly, something is off between the pair right from the get-go: he is deeply unsatisfied being a wealthy, successful, and inanely overpaid movie screenwriter fixing scripts that he feels are beneath him.  What he yearns for is the fantasy of a bohemian lifestyle in Paris that would help him complete his dream novel project.  Inez, on the other hand, thinks that the idealistic Gil’s dreams are silly and getting in the way of her materialistic happiness.  Gil likes the smaller and subtler accoutrements of Parisian city life, whereas Inez only wants to live a big, sprawling, and noisy urban lifestyle back home in America.  These two are just…hopelessly incompatible. 



One night changes everything for Gil: Instead of going out dancing and partying with Inez and some of her uptight and “pedantic” intellectual friends (always solid targets for Allen's scathing satiric slaughter) Gil decides to aimlessly wander the streets and drink in the sights.  Just as a nearby church clock tower strikes midnight an old Peugeot pulls up filled with partiers.  They invite him into their vehicle; initially Gil politely declines, but the friendly smiles and gestures from the strangers entice him in.  When the car gets to its destination Gil finds himself at a gathering that seems…uh…a bit off and out of his element, but he enjoys the atmosphere nonetheless.  Then he meets F. Scott Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston), who looks suspiciously like, yeah, that one.  Then he meets an outgoing, opinionated, and verbose man named Ernest Hemmingway (Carey Stoll) along with Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), and Picasso among others.  Realizing that these are no mere coincidences – and judging by the period decor all around him - Gil astonishingly puts two and two together.  At dawn he returns to the stuffiness of the present, but every midnight he is drawn back to the same Church where the old roadster picks him up for more trips back to the past. 

Yes, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS has time travel, but Allen wisely never goes out of his way to explain any of the particulars.  The importance here is that – like any romantic and escapist fairy tale – you are just supposed to suspend disbelief and simply go with it.  Explaining precisely how Gil manages to be transported to the 1920’s every night would have been as foolhardy as it would have been redundant.  The temporal warp that leaps Gil back to the past and eventually back to the present just…happens, and it becomes such an appealingly offbeat conceit (especially for an Allen film) that the pleasure of seeing Gil exuberantly and giddily enjoy himself with each new visit is a delight.  Of course, he initially thinks he’s going mad, but the more artistic and literary idols from the past he comes in contact with, the more childlike awe comes over him.  You know the ageless question, “If you could have dinner with anyone from the past, who would it be?”…well…imagine if you could do just that, but with multiple figures you hold in high esteem.  Picture that and you’ll understand Gil’s elation all through the film. 

A lot of funny things happen on Gil’s travels, and I’ll try not to spoil too many of them.  He hooks up with Gertrude Stein and pleads with her to read his manuscript, which she does and later calls it an interesting bit of science fiction (remember: it was written in the 2000’s).  He also has many delightful exchanges with Hemmingway, who frankly tells him that he'll hate his book if he reads it, because he'll either like it and hate the author because of it or he'll hate because it's junk.  Gil also comes across a very, very weird Salvador Dali (the spirited Adrien Brody) and has, for my money, the most hysterical conversation with Luis Bunuel: he gives Bunuel an idea for a film that involves people sharing dinner and then, in the end, they can’t escape the house.  Bunuel amusingly deadpans that it makes no sense at all. 

Gil’s most stimulating person of interest in the past is the ravishing Adriana (Marion Cotillard) who has had flings with both Picasso and Hemmingway and now seems drawn to Gil.  Gil is also instantly smitten with Adriana, and considering that she is played by Cotillard, one of the most inviting and beautiful screen presences of the movies, its not that shocking.  Gil finds her limitlessly attractive, but perhaps he is also in love with the time period she exists in.  During one fateful day both of them find themselves warped back into the past (pre-1920’s), during which she becomes so enraptured in that she decides that she does not want to return to the 20’s.  Gil, however, thinks the 20’s were the height of Parisian cultural sophistication and enlightenment, whereas Adriana thinks its was the late 1800’s and turn of the Century.  What happens is one of the oddest lover’s quarrels I’ve ever seen in a movie. 

Yet, scenes like these reflect the film’s themes of how one’s love of the past unhealthily overrides all other emotional imperatives, and it’s noteworthy how exceedingly well Allen fuses that with the inherent offbeat, fish-out-of-water comedy of the story.  None of the this, though, would work as well if it were not for the casting of Owen Wilson, who perhaps is the finest Allen-replacement Allen has had in a film.  Gil is the type of awkward, semi-neurotic, opinionated, and, yes, romantic minded protagonist that Allen has been writing and playing for decades.  Wilson takes the Allen persona a little deeper: he has to suggest a person that is ultimately sincere, polite, and passionate that tip-toes through insanity (after all, he’s time traveling and does not know how or why) but he also has to evoke a deep, wide-eyed euphoria for all of the legendary figures he comes across.  Wilson has never been more effortlessly assured, amiable, and winning in a film. 

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS has a few minor hiccups, like how Rachel McAdams’ character is essentially a fairly one-dimensional snob (granted, it’s refreshing to see the radiant actress play such an dislikable and self-absorbed twit) and Inez's parents and friends are equally one-note as preening, paranoid, and overly pretentious windbags.  Those are very inconsequential nitpicks in an otherwise resoundingly strong return to form for Allen.  MIDNIGHT IN PARIS has the requisite snappy and sharp dialogue, concise pacing, low-key direction, sexual triangulations, pathos and laughs, and so forth that Allen-aficionados have come to cherish.  But the film also finds a uniquely inventive premise to place all of those elements in while touching on contemplative themes that are easily relatable.  It’s ironic, but for a film that challenges the notions of romanticism and nostalgia, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS makes us hungrily recall and swoon for the classic Allen films of yesteryear, and that’s what makes it his most secure and sound directorial effort in nearly 20 years.

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